Tips & Tricks: Recording Sound

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

“In the same way that painting, or looking at paintings, makes you see the world in a different way, listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently.” –Walter Murch

Recording video requires an innumerable amount of things to consider. You have the basic questions of what camera and lens to use, not to mention lights, camera angles, and focal length, among others. But what about sound?

Sound is one of those things that makes or breaks a video. How many times have you seen a video on YouTube that looks professionally done but sounds like it was recorded in a tin can?

We don’t want you to be one of those people. That’s why we’ve enlisted the help of our video experts, T.J. and Tim, to give you some tips and tricks for recording sound.

T.J.’s production company, GingerATTACK!, is often recording live music and interviews with bands. There are two major things to keep in mind when recording sound live:

First, you need to get the right mic for the job. This means knowing a specific mic’s polar pattern, or pick-up pattern. There are three main types of pick-up patterns:

1. Omnidirectional pick-up grabs all the sound in a small spherical areal. Think a normal handheld condenser mic. This picks up the sound from the speaker’s mouth and chest. While it may pick up some ambient noise, it won’t be a lot, which is good if you aren’t trying to record ambient sound.

Omnidirectional pattern

2. Cardioid pick-up patterns are more directional than omnidrectional patterns, as it won’t pick up sound behind the mic, making it an ideal choice for interviews, for instance (clip-on Lavalier systems have cardioid pick-up patterns). Interestingly, the Rode Stereo Video Mic Pro‘s polar pattern is cardioid, which means it is somewhat directional, but that it also can pick up ambient noise, especially when placed in the middle of, say, a concert hall.

Cardioid pattern

3. Shotgun pick-up patterns are the most directional. This means you have to point the mic in the direction of the sound you want to record. Shotgun mics, like the NTG-2, will pick-up ambient sound, however, as they do pick-up sound slightly behind and around them.

Shotgun pattern

The other really important tip that T.J. has is to record multiple signals. Not only will this give you insurance that you got the audio on at least one of the signals, but multiple signals simply gives you the best chance at recording the best sound possible.

Say you’re recording live music. The Zoom H4n is your best friend. The two on-board mics will pick up ambient sound in stereo. The XLR input allows you to run an XLR cable directly from the soundboard to the recorder. Then, you can also run another channel from the camera, which you could outfit with either Rode Video Mic Pro to get an extra directional signal of the music.

If you’re recording an interview in a studio, you should use a shotgun mic on your subject, but you should also have a Lavalier mic hooked up to the person. The Lavalier mic alone provides vocal clarity, but it sounds too clean. The shotgun mic, therefore, gives you ambient sound, while also backing up the vocal audio.

GingerATTACK! recently recorded the introductory videos for Columbus Alive! Bands to Watch 2013, such as this one about Columbus band Forest & the Evergreens:

[Filmed and edited by Julie Schatz and TJ Hansen of GingerATTACK! Video Productions]

TJ says about these productions: “These videos were really ‘run and gun’, so we wanted to use the least amount of equipment possible. All outdoor shots were filmed with available light on the Canon C100. The great dynamic range and low light sensitivity were great for what was some of the worst lighting conditions: a multitude of varying light temperatures from multiple sources. Being able to run audio straight into camera without an external recorder was also a must in that situation. We did a little color correction but barely any. We really wanted to see what  the camera could do. It was really the perfect camera for a fast-paced shoot.” Ideally, the shotgun mic that the GingerATTACK! crew used would have been backed up with a cardioid lavalier system, but in these situations sometimes recording multiple signals isn’t always possible. By the way, if you’re interested in the complete gear list that GingerATTACK! used to make these videos, click here.

Now that you know how different mics pick up sound, let’s look at your options for recording methods.

The first way to record sound is on-camera. Ideally, on-camera sound recording should largely be avoided, Tim says. But event videographers and some documentary filmmakers, for instance, might not have the option to record sound off-camera. In that case, the de facto industry standard for DSLR on-camera audio is the Rode VideoMic Pro. The automatic gain control (which stabilizes the volume levels) and low-pass filter (which gets rid of that constant droning hum caused by appliances like refrigerators and computers) make the VideoMic Pro an indispensable tool when you’re out in the field and run-and-gun shooting.

Say hello to the industry standard for on-camera DSLR audio recording.
Say hello to the industry standard for on-camera DSLR audio recording.

Additionally, for a little more money, the Rode Stereo VideoMic Pro is also a good option. The Stereo VideoMic Pro features the same advantages as the standard VideoMic Pro while also providing high quality stereo recording. This is especially important if you’re recording live music, especially if you want to capture the ambiance of a live audience, T.J. says.

This one's pretty great too.
This one’s pretty great too.

The best case scenario, however, would be to record audio off-camera. Here, of course, you have a myriad of options.

For DSLR videographers wanting to capture audio off-camera, Tim recommends using a portable recorder such as the Zoom H4n or the Roland R-26.

The Zoom H4n: you could record a rock album on a bus with this thing.
The Zoom H4n: you could record a rock album on a bus with this thing.

The Zoom H4n can record in stereo on four channels simultaneously by using its two on-board mics in addition to external mics or direct inputs, and can even be used as a 4-track studio if you’re a musician. Its X/Y stereo condenser mics give your recording a more natural depth, and can record in 24-bit/96-khz WAV files (i.e. it sounds better than a DVD) or smaller MP3 formats at 48 kbps. Not to mention it’s very affordable.

R-26: "Touch me."
R-26: “Touch me.”

Like the Zoom H4n, the Roland R-26 allows you to record on six channels (three stereo pairs) through its built-in mics and external inputs. This gives you the flexibility of selecting individual tracks or composite mixes when using the audio in post. Most importantly (well, maybe not most importantly, but it’s pretty darn awesome), the Roland R-26 features a large LCD touchscreen, which makes its interface incredibly user-friendly.

DLSR videographers also have one more option to recording audio on-camera, and that’s with the Rode NTG-2. Tim says that the “problem with recording on-camera with DSLR is that DSLRs don’t charge mics.” Therefore, it’s almost impossible to use any professional-grade shotgun mic on-camera with a DSLR. However, because the Rode NTG-2 can use phantom power to keep itself charged while on-camera, it can be used on a DSLR. Plus, the NTG-2 is one of the best condenser shotgun microphones around and is used widely in the video and cinema industry. Or, take that NTG-2 off-camera with our boom stand kit.

The Rode NTG-2 is basically the Honda Civic of microphones: affordable, reliable, and guaranteed to last.
The Rode NTG-2 is basically the Honda Civic of microphones: affordable, reliable, and guaranteed to last.

The Rode NTG-3 is Tim’s recommendation for documentary filmmakers capturing footage out in the field. That’s because the NTG-3 is resistant to moisture, meaning if you are changing environments quickly the NTG-3 will compensate for humidity so that you don’t have to adjust your levels every time you go from indoors to outdoors, or vice versa.

The NTG-2's younger, handsomer, slightly more well-off brother.
The NTG-2’s younger, handsomer, slightly more well-off brother.

For the best audio results, Tim suggests shooting with a pro camcorder, or a cinema camcorder like the Canon C100which have XLR inputs that, when used with mics that have XLR outputs, give you the most balanced sound possible.

This is where it's at.
This is where it’s at.

If you’re conducting interviews, you’ll want to use a wireless Lavalier system. Tim specifically recommends the Samson Airline Micro system. The receiver mounts on a hot shoe, making it an appropriate recording system for shooting a report or a how-to video with a DSLR. As far as headphones go, Tim recommends getting ones that are not noise canceling but are studio monitor headphones, which dramatically cut down on bass levels, giving you a more balanced and representative audio sample.

Finally, the foam windscreens that come on most mics just won’t cut it most of the time, especially when the wind picks up. Therefore, Tim recommends picking up a “dead animal” windscreen, which heavily cuts down on wind interference. Or, if you are using an NTG-3 and want to protect it best, you’ll definitely want to consider a Rode BLIMP.

No actual kittens were harmed in the making of this "dead kitten."
No actual kittens were harmed in the making of this “dead kitten.”

We hope this gives you a start when it comes to capturing audio. If you have any questions, please feel free to call the store at 866-940-3686 and ask for T.J.

Midwest Photo

7 thoughts on “Tips & Tricks: Recording Sound

  1. A couple of things. It’s important to understand that the microphone’s polar pattern is along the axis of the microphone. To visualize this, imagine laying the microphone on the pattern with the capsule at the center and the handle on the bottom. With a cardioid pattern, the greatest rejection is along the handle to the rear of the microphone. The rejection at the side of the microphone is only about 6dB. This is what makes the cardioid a good vocal mike. It picks up the sound of the speaker, but not the ambient, when held more or less horizontally in the speaker’s hand . Most vocal mics are meant to be held very close to the speaker’s lips. They don’t pick up much sound at any real distance from the mic. Omnis may be better interview mics since they pick up sound from all directions, but they still may need to be close to the speaker’s lips. Interview mics tend to be held with the handle vertical by the interviewer. Shotgun microphones generally are more sensitive and pick up sound from a considerable distance, a very useful thing when used on a handheld boom. Boom mounted shotgun mics tend to be pointed down at the speaker, so the handle is pointed off into space. Another important thing to understand when using multiple microphones is comb filtering. Improper microphone spacing can cause the sounds to be out of phase when arriving at the individual mics. When the audio is mixed, these out of phase sounds cancel each other. Since phase is dependent on frequency and arrival time, only certain frequencies cancel, resulting in the comb filter effect. When two mics are used in a stereo pattern, like those on the Zoom H4N, the mics are at the same location,but pointing different directions. The sounds arrive at the same time and there are no phase differences. When using two mics, they should be at the same distance from the sound source. If you use multiple mics and record each mic on its own channel, they can be mixed later to get the best sound. If you mix them and record two channels, that is the mix you get. The H4N will record four channels, so you can use the onboard mics for general sound, a shotgun boom mic for the speaker and an omni for ambient sound. Since they are separate channels, you can mix them or not and get the sound that you want.

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